Few horror series are as revered as Silent Hill, and with good reason- the original few games tell unique, interesting stories and give the player a sense of unease and dread that few imitators can recreate. After the fourth game though, Konami started to outsource their games and Team Silent was all but gone, until 2009. With the Wii sky rocketing in popularity, they came back to make one last game in the series, and many were apprehensive about it. Rather than a brand new entry in the original canon, they instead made a completely reimagined version of the first game. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories took characters, locations, and certain gameplay ideas and reworked them into something entirely separate from the rest of the series. Many purists hated it, but I’m here to tell you otherwise. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories was in many ways ahead of its time, and stands as a moving supernaturally themed drama when taken as its own piece of work. Let’s take a look back shall we?
Before I go any further, I’m going to be talking full spoilers for the game. If you haven’t played it, it’s worth tracking down in some form and shouldn’t take long to get through, clocking in at about 5- 6 hours for an initial play through. So go play it.
Okay, we on the same page? Good. Let’s get started.
Running From Your Problems
The original Silent Hill games are as old school as survival horror gets. Your character runs in clunky fashion, combat is awkward, and you run around semi linear levels solving puzzles and fighting off some of the most bizarre and memorable monsters in gaming. It’s classic stuff, and at least the second and third games hold up relatively well today (I’ve only seen bits of the first and fourth).
Imagine people’s surprise when Team Silent announced that the game would be what we now refer to as a Walking Simulator. The nightmare sections from previous games would return, but instead of the creepy, rustic theme, they would now freeze the world over in a very literal sense. Additionally, they would be the only time that Harry Mason would ever be in any danger. Admittedly, this was a strange choice. After all, horror works best when you don’t know what’s coming next. So having the game signal to the player “hey, shit’s about to get spooky,” would undermine the terror the series is known for.
I’ll say it up front- this game is not very scary. The nightmare sequences kind of drag after a while, with repetition settling in, leading more to annoyance than fear. And the fact that you can only run from the bizarre things that chase you means that they can devolve into extended games of hide and seek. I’m pretty torn about gameplay loops like this, personally. They can be intense when executed correctly, but most of the time they rely on trial and error mechanics that just become grating. Shattered Memories can be intense during the chases, especially near the end, but it doesn’t come close to achieving the level of dread found in the third game (which is my favorite horror game of all time despite having first experienced it in the much maligned HD Collection).
However, this isn’t necessarily bad. As we will come to see, the game tells a very different kind of story from the rest of the series, and is going for an entirely different feel.
An Old World, Reimagined
The town of Silent Hill is an iconic piece of gaming, with streets named after famous horror novelists and memorable locations like Toluca Lake and the wonderfully decrepit Lakeview Hotel that served as the climactic location of Silent Hill 2. In Shattered Memories, outside of nightmares, players explore the town on a fairly linear path, with every location being completely reimagined. And here, that’s not a bad thing.
One of the series’ greatest strengths is taking familiar, ordinarily comforting locations and perverting them into something out of a nightmare. In previous games, regular locations like bowling alleys and hospitals still take on a foreboding air even when in the fog covered limbo. This is in part because of the fantastic sense of isolation the games conjure. Each area feels like it used to be lived in, but has long since been abandoned. It tinges everything with an air of melancholy and longing, like a long car ride on a lonely stretch of highway. It feels familiar, but off, and it instills in you this undefinable sense of longing.
Shattered Memories uses these familiar feelings to great effect. Every environment is filled with little details and hidden memories for Harry to uncover. Friendly faces are few and far between- throughout the game, you meet up with the likes of cop Cybil Bennett, nurse Lisa Garland, and singer Michelle Valdez. These encounters are usually fairly brief, and as the game goes on, characters appear and disappear, as if they reside in a dream (we’ll get to why later). The town is mostly abandoned with Harry being completely isolated from everyone else.
It lends the game a unique feeling of sadness that is oppressive, but never too much so. It helps that the sound track by masterful composer Akira Yamaoka is entirely on point, knowing exactly when to relax and when to ramp things up. After all, nothing can convey feelings like sounds (imagine half of the dramatic scenes in Twin Peaks without the iconic “Laura Palmer’s Theme” playing) and Shattered Memories masterfully blends its sounds with fantastic environmental design to put the player in Harry’s lonely shoes.
To say it’s better or worse than other games in the series is kind of missing the point. It’s neither- it’s just different.
Of Cell Phones and Psychologists
The story is the biggest shakeup from the original game, and is one of the primary reasons many people disown this entry as being unworthy of the Silent Hill moniker. The set-up: Harry Mason is driving on the night of a storm and crashes his car. Cheryl, his daughter, is missing when he comes to and he sets out into the cold night to find her. At certain points, he meets up with characters who flesh out the world and play into the story’s themes. Additionally, the player is given many psychological tests throughout the game from a first person perspective by psychologist Michael Kaufmann. How they play the game and how they answer these tests factor into different elements of the story, including how characters behave, what environments look like, and how the game ends.
Additionally, the game introduced a truly neat mechanic with its cell phone. Harry can make and receive calls, with various phone numbers waiting to be found by the player. The cool thing is that each number actually yields some kind of result, even if it’s just an Easter egg (in a brilliant move, Harry can call the Konami service hotline- they’ll tell him he is beyond help since you’re in Silent Hill). Playing on the Wii, you can hold the remote up to your ear like an actual phone and hear the calls that way. Other elements of the game creatively use the Wii’s unique motion sensing to further immerse the player. From pointing with Harry’s flashlight to interacting with objects in the environment, the Wii version of Shattered Memories was one of the few games to make creative, interesting use of the Wii’s many unique features.
The phone factors into the gameplay and simple puzzles as well. Often times, you’ll see ghosts that can be photographed, leading to some audio cue or strange scene that further fleshes out whatever location you’re in. It’s all low key brilliant- you explore the environment and hear all these small stories that initially seem unrelated. But the game’s real brilliance lies in a second play through. See, the game has a big twist that completely flips the events of the game on its head. Let’s dive in.
This is where we get into huge, massive, gigantic spoilers for everything in the game. Like I said earlier, it’s worth playing through. So if you have any interest in playing it, and don’t want the ending spoiled, you’ve been warned.
A Twist as Old as Time
Harry has been dead the whole time. Cheryl Mason, as a young adult, was the person you played as in the psychologist segments. It’s a twist that, executed differently, would be eye rolling. Instead, Team Silent executed it in a way that the story becomes something more. Rather than simply using it for shock value, it turns the game into a meditation on grief, accepting your parents as less than perfect people, and how your early years come to inform the rest of your life.
See, I interpret the game as one giant metaphor for the single session Cheryl goes through during the game’s events. Michael Kaufmann, trying to get to the bottom of what’s causing Cheryl to behave self destructively, talks about various times in her life. When he discusses high school, Harry begins exploring Midwich High. When he discusses puberty, Harry is in the woods, exploring cabins where teens once held a party. There he discovers a pink jacket covered in blood. It’s not from a murder. It’s from Cheryl’s first period, or possibly her losing her virginity.
The nightmare segments always kick in after some element of the truth comes out. This is no more evident than late in the game, where Harry is confronted by Cybil Bennett. She holds a gun on him (through a series of shenanigans, Harry is at the scene where Lisa Garland dies) and says that Harry Mason died several years ago. And in the middle of her sentence, her and the world freeze over. Harry is dogged by the strange pink monstrosities that pursue him in all the other nightmares. It’s because Cheryl is in denial about the kind of person her dad was.
See, Harry’s appearance and mannerisms change depending on how you play the game. If you focus on booze and choose to go in to locations such as bars, he comes to look like a washed up old drunk. And this is because Cheryl approaches the truth more and more as her session goes on. See, the game is smart with its endings- no matter what, Harry is dead (aside from the joke UFO ending) and Cheryl comes to accept who her father was. Instead, who he was is the ending.
There’s a home video that plays in the very beginning of Harry and Cheryl at an amusement park. They pose in a cardboard cutout and Cheryl exclaims “I love my daddy!” With the endings, that video plays again, and this time a second part is seen. In one ending, a clip plays showing Harry leaving home following him and his wife’s divorce. He tells her that no matter what, the two of them love her very much and that it’s not her fault. It’s a bittersweet ending, and also the most hopeful one. All the other outcomes can be considered bad endings. In one, he’s an abusive alcoholic, yelling at Cheryl to get him another beer and then commenting on how useless his family is. In another, he is a total sleaze ball, starting a sex tape between him, Lisa, and Michelle. How you behave throughout the game retroactively makes the Harry in Cheryl’s head start behaving more like his real self as she comes closer and closer to accepting who he was.
The game is draped in darkness, with Harry’s light often times being the only thing helping you navigate. It’s an obvious but effective metaphor for Michael and Cheryl exploring her past to uncover the truth. Then there are the nightmare monsters, who represent Cheryl’s denial. After all, they relentlessly pursue Harry as he approaches the truth, and even though they can overwhelm him, the game has no fail state. Some might say it’s a sign of the developers making the game too easy, but it ties brilliantly into the narrative- Cheryl puts up a fight when Michael tries to help her see the truth, but the truth will always break through.
It’s fitting that one of the best songs in the game is called “Acceptance” (side note: there’s a killer cover of “Always on my Mind,” as well). The game uses a well-worn twist to instead explore some extremely grounded themes. Shattered Memories is all about a different kind of horror: the horror of growing up and facing reality. It’s about accepting the fact that your parents aren’t perfect people. They’re human beings who make mistakes. It’s about the impact parents have on a child, most evidenced in the section in the high school, which details an affair Cheryl has with one of her teachers and how she behaved in a way that saw her ostracized by her peers. It’s about how one death can inform a person for the rest of their lives. And most of all, it’s about accepting reality as it was, not as the way you remember it and using that acceptance to move on from your grief.
Taken as an entry in the renowned Silent Hill series, Shattered Memories may not be the strongest game. But taken as an abstract story about grief and acceptance, it succeeds with its merging of gameplay and story. Much like the best games in the series, it tackles real, heavy themes in a unique way that almost goes beyond words. In many ways, it was ahead of its time, with walking simulators and chase based horror games now being the norm. And ultimately, it’s a worthwhile piece of video games storytelling that is absolutely worth seeking out in some form.
I’m hoping Konami will eventually give up the Pachinko game and maybe rerelease this in some form. But I’m not holding my breath.
Stay warm and stay safe in these coming winter months, friends. And if you crash in the town of Silent Hill, you’re likely beyond help.